Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

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The Color Guard, A Corporal’s Notes, James Kendall Hosmer.

June 16, 2013

The Color Guard, A Corporal's Notes, James Kendall Hosmer

June 16.—I write in a corner of a ravine, close within rifle-range of the works at Port Hudson. The Fifty-second Regiment are holding an advanced position here, and, ever since daylight of the morning of the 14th, have lived in the midst of a rain of rifle-balls. At the bottom of the little ravine, I am secure; but if I should put my head up to the surface, climbing up the bank six or eight feet, I should be in the midst of flying bullets, and a fair mark for the rebel sharpshooters who are close at hand. Our brigade is thrown out into the very teeth of the enemy, on ground our troops have never before occupied. This little corner is occupied by the color-guard. If I go to the company, I must go stooping or crawling on my stomach; I must run from a stump to a trunk, and from that to a clump of bushes, and hear all the time the “zip” and “hum” of the rifle-balls.

We have had a battle. Not quite a week ago, we began to hear of it. Some of the regiments which were to be engaged were told of it; and Gen. Paine, who was to have an important command, made speeches among his men, and instructed them in the use of hand-grenades. In the woods, parties of men were busy, cutting fascines; and bags of cotton, as large as a man could comfortably carry, were piled up near the approaches to the enemy’s works. We knew nothing certain, however, until Saturday. (It is now Tuesday.) Toward the end of that afternoon, the explicit orders came. The assault was to be made the next morning, and our regiment was to have a share in it. We were not to go home without the baptism of fire and blood.

Before dark, we were ordered into line, and stacked our arms. Each captain made a little speech. “No talking in the ranks; no flinching. Let every one see that his canteen is full, and that he has hard bread enough for a day. That is all you will carry beside gun and equipments.” We left the guns in stack, polished, and ready to be caught on the instant; and lay down under the trees. At midnight came the cooks with coffee and warm food. Soon after came the order to move; then, slowly and with many halts, nearly four hundred strong, we took up our route along the wood-paths. Many other regiments were also in motion. The forest was full of Rembrandt pictures, — a bright blaze under a tree, the faces and arms of soldiers all aglow about it; the wheel of an army-wagon, or the brass of a cannon, lit up; then the gloom of the wood, and the night shutting down about it.

At length, it was daybreak; and, with every new shade of light in the east, a new degree of energy was imparted to the cannonade. As we stood at the edge of the wood, it was roar on all sides. In a few minutes, we were in motion again. We crossed a little bridge over a brook thickly covered with cotton to conceal the tramp of men, and noise of wheels; climbed a steep pitch, and entered a trench or military road cut through a ravine, passing some freshly made rifle-pits and batteries. We were now only screened from the rebel works by a thin hedge. Here the rifle-balls began to cut keen and sharp through the air about us; and the cannonade, as the east now began to redden, reached its height, — a continual deafening uproar, hurling the air against one in great waves, till it felt almost like a wall of rubber, bounding and rebounding from the body, — the great guns of the “Richmond,” the siege-Parrotts, the smaller field-batteries; and, through all, the bursting of the shells within the rebel lines, and the keen, deadly whistle of well-aimed bullets. A few rods down the military road, the column paused. The work of death had begun; for ambulance-men were bringing back the wounded: and, almost before we had time to think we were in danger, I saw one of our men fall back into the arms of his comrades, shot dead through the chest. The banks of the ravine rose on either side of the road in which we had halted: but just here the trench made a turn; and in front, at the distance of five or six hundred yards, we could plainly see the rebel rampart, red in the morning-light as with blood, and shrouded in white vapor along the edge as the sharpshooters behind kept up an incessant discharge. I believe I felt no sensation of fear, nor do I think those about me did. Wilson and Hardiker carried the flags, and their faces were cheerful and animated. I thanked God that Sunday morning that I was in perfect strength in every limb for that day’s most solemn service, — service not to be rendered in any peaceful temple, but amid grime of powder, and sweat of blood: nevertheless His service, and that which should bring about for Him the acceptable things.

Our brigadier is with us at the front; and now, calling the colonel, the two soldierly figures climb the bank of the ravine, and take a narrow survey of the ground. In a moment, the order comes. We are to move up this rough path to the right, then advance out from the shelter of the trees into the open space before the fortifications; deploying as skirmishers meanwhile, and making our way through the fire to a closer position. We climb up the path. I go with my rifle between Wilson and Hardiker; keeping nearest the former, who carries the national flag. In a minute or two, the column has ascended, and is deploying in a long line, under the colonel’s eye, on the open ground. The rebel engineers are most skilful fellows. Between us and the brown earth-heap which we are to try to gain to-day, the space is not wide; but it is cut up in every direction with ravines and gullies. These were covered, until the parapet was raised, with a heavy growth of timber; but now it has all been cut down, so that in every direction the fallen tops of large trees interlace, trunks block up every passage, and brambles are growing over the whole. It is out of the question to advance here in line of battle; it seems almost out of the question to advance in any order: but the word is given, “Forward!” and on we go. Know that this whole space is swept by a constant patter of balls: it is really a “leaden rain.” We go crawling and stooping: but now and then before us rises in plain view the line of earth-works, smoky and sulphurous with volleys; while all about us fall the balls, now sending a lot of little splinters from a stump, now knocking the dead wood out of the old tree-trunk that is sheltering me, now driving up a cloud of dust from a little knoll, or cutting off the head of a weed just under the hand as with an invisible knife. I see one of our best captains carried off the field, mortally wounded, shot through both lungs, — straight, bright-eyed, though so sadly hurt, supported by two of his men; and now almost at my side, in the color-company, one soldier is struck in the hand, and another in the leg. “Forward!” is the order. We all stoop; but the colonel does not stoop: he is as cool as he was in his tent last night, when I saw him drink iced lemonade. He turns now to examine the ground, then faces back again to direct the advance of this or that flank. Wilson springs on from cover to cover, and I follow close after him. It is hard work to get the flag along: it cannot be carried in the air; and we drag it and pass it from hand to hand among the brambles, much to the detriment of its folds. The line pauses a moment. Capt. Morton, who has risen from a sick-bed to be with his command, is coolly cautioning his company. The right wing is to remain in reserve, while the left pushes still farther forward. The major is out in front of us now. He stands upon a log which bridges a ravine,—a plain mark for the sharpshooters, who overlook the position, not only from the parapet, but from the tall trees within the rebel works. Presently we move on again, through brambles and under charred trunks, tearing our way, and pulling after us the colors; creeping on our bellies across exposed ridges, where bullets hum and sing like stinging bees; and, right in plain view, the ridge of earth, its brow white with incessant volleys.

Down this slope, and it will do. The color-guard is some rods in advance of the company, and may pause. I hear cheering. A ridge hides the space in front of the works from which it comes; and I tell Wilson I must creep up, and see the charge.

“Better not,” he says. “We will go where our duty lies; but we had better run no risk beyond that.”

He is wiser than I. While he speaks, I have partially raised myself to climb forward to the point of view. Balls are striking close by me. I have become a mark to sharpshooters in the trees, and lie down again to be safe. The color-guard are under orders not to fire, except when the colors are especially threatened. My piece is loaded and capped; but I can only be shot at, without returning the discharge. Down into our little nook now come tumbling a crowd of disorganized, panting men. They are part of a New-York regiment, who, on the crest just over us, have been meeting with very severe loss. They say their dead and dying are heaped up there. We believe it; for we can hear them, they are so near: indeed, some of those who come stumbling down are wounded; some have their gunstocks broken by shot, and the barrels bent, while they are unharmed. They are frightened and exhausted, and stop to recover themselves; but presently their officers come up, and order them forward again. From time to time, afterwards, wounded men crawl back from their position a few yards in front of where we are, — one shot through the ankles, who, however, can crawl on his hands and knees; one in the hand; one with his blouse all torn about his breast, where a ball has struck him, yet he can creep away. Looking up toward the top of our little ravine, I had seen Company D climbing forward; the well-known heads and faces coming into sight for the moment as they climbed over an obstruction, then going down again into the bushes, — Wivers active as a squirrel; McGill with his old black hat pulled down about his ears, as if it were a snowstorm he was out in. They disappear; but soon I see the head of Bivins making rapid way backward.

“What is the matter, Bivins?”

“Sergt. Rogers is shot.”


“No: through the thigh, well up; but, we think, not fatally. I am going for a stretcher.”

“Look out for yourself meantime!” I shout to him; thinking of his bright young wife and little boy, who would come to sad grief enough, if that honest head, appearing and disappearing among the tangled thickets, should be brought low by a rebel marksman.

It is now noon and after. The sun is intolerably hot, and we have no sufficient shade. That, however, is nothing for us who are unhurt; but we hear of poor wounded men lying without shelter, among them Gen. Paine, whom the ambulance-men cannot yet reach on account of the enemy’s fire. We begin to know that the attack has failed. Toward the end of the afternoon, at considerable risk, I make my way to Company D. They are on the brow of an eminence, on a flat plateau, just even with the rebel gun-barrels, almost without shelter; all lying flat on their backs and stomachs, the flying balls keeping up a constant drone and hum just above them. Rogers ventured to stand up, and was shot almost at once. The men told how they had looked over the hill-brow, and seen the charge, — the fruitless dash at the impenetrable obstacles,— the volley from the breastworks, the fall of scores. We know nothing certainly. There are rumors, thick as the rifle-balls, of this general killed, that regiment destroyed, and successful attempts elsewhere. The sun goes down on this day of blood. We have lost several killed, and several more wounded, and have done all we were called upon to do. The colonel tells us we have been cool, prudent, and brave. We have not been as much exposed as some other regiments, and our loss has not been large. The fire, however, seemed very hot, and close at hand; and the wonder to us all is, that no more fell. Darkness settles down; shots are received and returned, but only at random now; and, ever and anon, from the batteries goes tearing through the air a monstrous shell, with a roar like a rushing railroad-train, then an explosion putting every thing for the moment in light.

At dusk, I creep back to the ravine, where I am to sleep. I have been awake since midnight, and almost every moment since has been one of excitement; first the anticipation, then the reality, of a pitched battle. What a day for these remote plains and woods! The little frightened birds I have seen fly to and fro, painfully shaken, I must believe, in their delicate frames by the concussion of the air during the cannon volleys; for I have felt it sensibly. So the green, harmless lizards, whose beauty and lithesome movement I have loved to watch, —these I have seen to-day, when I have looked up from my covert, peering about curiously, and running to and fro to find out the occasion of this uproar and jar, so suddenly come to disturb their haunts. For food to-day, I have had two or three hard crackers and cold potatoes. We have no blankets: so down I lie to sleep as I can on the earth, without covering; and, before morning, am chilled through with the dew and coldness of the air.

The Wolf at Bat.

Our brigade is thrown forward, as Gen. Banks says, “upon the threshold of the enemy’s fortifications,” and have it for their duty to maintain an incessant skirmish, day and night, with those sharp-eyed fellows just opposite.

Monday the heat is intense, and we have but little shelter. I fare hard; for I must draw rations with my company, and yet must remain with the colors, which are still in the ravine. Toward the evening of Monday, I work my way out to our cooks. One must go cautiously, stooping and creeping, and, when the balls whistle sharp, hiding till the riflemen look some other way. I gain, at length, the shelter of the woods behind, where lie unburied dead from the field, and piles of stretchers yet bloody with their burdens of wounded men. Each one of the color-guard tonight must watch. My watch is at midnight. I profess to love Nature, and in that love “hold communion with her visible forms.” “For my gayer hours,” I have indeed found that she has a “voice of gladness.” Tonight, my musings are darker. Certainly, O outer world! with a smile and deep eloquence of beauty do you glide into the soldier’s musings, and steal away their sharpness.

I climbed up from the ravine, and sat alone, upon the hill on the field, under the starlight. It was a sweet night, and only once or twice came to my sense the taint of unburied slain. For the rest, all was pure. In a half-comic way, the whippoorwill changed his song into “Whipped you well, whipped you well!” I will never believe the bull-frogs that night croaked any thing but “Rebs, rebs!” and the jeering owls hooted out from the tree-tops, “What can you do-o-o?” All about the horizon, fringing the starlit space of blue, a storm was gathering; and behind the black clouds shook the lightning, like the menacing finger of an almighty power threatening doom to this obstinate stronghold. ‘Twas like that, and ’twas like the vision seen, in days of romance, by King Arthur, — the sword “Excalibur” brandished by the phantom arm out of the lake.

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